This being the time of the year to remind ourselves of our good fortune, both past and present, I thought I'd recall the many "Christmas Presents" I've been handed over the years. "Christmas Presents!?" you say, rather incredulously, "None of your meets occur even close to December 25." True. But over the years, especially when recruiting was a difficult task, there have been times when there was virtually no chance an athlete would make it to the meet. But, as Alexander Pope wrote those many years ago, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast", so I made the phone call and, VOILA! success was mine. I rather liberally, define that as a CHRISTMAS PRESENT. Should your thoughts immediately turn to "Bah! Humbug", tough luck Scrooge. This is my story and if I want to call things CHRISTMAS PRESENTS, so I shall.
SUZY FAVOR was so far ahead of her time as a high school runner she was the epitome of the phrase, "In a class by herself." The Pathmark Classic was still in its infancy. To have a star of her magnitude would brighten the heavens of the competition and send us farther on the road to legitimacy. But Favor has never left Wisconsin to run anywhere. Asking her to come to New Haven via NewYork City was the longest of long chances. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained (this is my day for quotes, bear with me) and I made the first of about 7-8 calls to the Favor household. The initial reaction was just as I thought, "No, I'm sorry, No." But in my younger days as a teacher, my summer job was selling Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia and one of the first things I learned was the sale only begins when the client has said "NO!"
A second call was made, then a third, each resulting in a little longer conversation. Could she have someone come with her? Could two people accompany her? Now, remember, we were paying for the tickets and had very little money. But, to his everlasting credit, Meet Director Tracy Sundlun accepted (another quote coming) The end justifies the means. If we had to spring for 2-3 tickets, so be it. Mrs. Favor finally agreed to two tickets, down from a potential of four. Today that couldn't happen. Our current policy is to provide tickets for athletes only according to the NCAA regulations.
Eventually, it was what we went with. Suzy was coming! That is until her Mom and Suzy got to Chicago, where they had to change planes. There was a problem with their tickets. Already skittish, they were ready to go home. Incredibly, right behind them in line, was Steve Bartold, the track coach at St John's University. He stepped up, resolved the issue and the Favor's to New Haven. Was it worth the effort? Her winning time of 4:46.47 is STILL the meet record! That was a CHRISTMAS PRESENT.
MEBRATHOM KEFLIZGHI is one of the world's GREAT sons! That's understandable. Why? He has a GREAT Dad. I recall standing just past the finish line at the Kinney Cross Country Championships (now Foot Locker) and Meb's Dad lifted him high into the air and repeatedly exclaimed, "THIS IS MY SON! THIS IS MY SON!" Meb got better. By the time the outdoor season started, he was the nation's top distance runner. NATURALLY, I recruited him to come to our outdoor meet. He accepted. Then, several days prior to the event, he called and cancelled. His Dad's birthday was the Sunday after the meet and he didn't want to miss his Dad's party. I went to work. To make a long story short, I asked the youngster, "Wouldn't a great birthday present be two gold medals, two national championships? With a helpful nudge from Bob Larsen, soon to be Meb's college coach, he changed his mind, came to the meet, won two races and went home with a wonderful present for a wonderful Dad. To me, that was a great CHRISTMAS PRESENT!
REUBEN REINA was the nation's top miler. So was John Trautman. So were the Mastalir brothers and right there was the top high school two miler, Mark Dani. It had the ingredients to be the greatest high school indoor mile ever. The calls were made. Trautman was in; the Masalirs, IN; Dani in as well. All I needed was Reina. The call was made to his high school coach. Luckily Reuben was in the coach's office so the invitation was made…and rejected. Reuben didn't feel like making the trip from Texas. "Sorry," said the coach. Conversation over, no Reina. But Reuben's girl friend was waiting for him outside and when he told her she basically said 'why miss such a great opportunity?' Back into the coach's office, "Tell him I'll be there," he said. The race was made. It was probably the finest high school indoor mile ever run. Trautman won as a last ditch finish fell inches short for the young Texan. As I recall, there were four kids under 4:10 with the fifth placer about 4:10+. That incredible race and the events leading up to it qualify it as a great CHRISTMAS PRESENT!
But, to me, my greatest Christmas Present was an act of kindness on my part. I'd gone to a Mickey Mouse meet at the Fork Union Military Academy, a splendid educational institution in Virginia. Tiny track, 160yds, no seating, the shot is thrown virtually INTO the crowd but a very good meet. I was there to see Suziann Reid, a terrific 400m runner and a terrific kid. To show you how the facility is I recall her telling me, "I always slow up on the turns since people are always walking out onto the track." Still, it's a good meet.
A few years later, at the same venue and meet, the Girls mile saw a major upset, the reigning outdoor national champion, SARAH BOWMAN, finished a well-beaten third. I saw her sobbing in a corner and went over, put my arm around her shoulder (I've always been a 'toucher') and consoled her. Unbeknownst to me, her Mom and Dad (Gail and Gary) had come up and were listening. Several days later he called and asked if I wanted to coach his daughter? The rest is history. The following year she set a hsr over the 1000m distance, won EVERY outdoor race she ran, moved to #3 on the AllTime list for the mile and was the fastest ever in competition limited to high school athletes. Sarah Bowman is my greatest CHRISTMAS PRESENT!
A MOST WONDERFUL NEW YEAR
FROM ALL OF US AT THE NATIONAL SCHOLASTIC SPORTS FOUNDATION